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The issue of diet is complex. Across the world, cultural, social and religious factors influence the make-up of what we eat. The Government do not believe that we should undermine those influences. We see value in encouraging people to think carefully about the environmental impact of the food they eat. Groups such as the Vegan Society provide information for consumers and help to increase their knowledge. However, we also need to recognise that a vegan diet is not for everyone.

I must tell the hon. Lady that I was a bit confused about whether she was advocating veganism, was concerned about animal welfare, or was simply recommending a balanced diet involving a lower proportion of processed meat—with which recommendation, incidentally, I would entirely agree. We know that there are recommendations suggesting that people should not eat too much processed meat. However, that is a long stretch from the more extreme position of a vegan, which, as the hon. Lady said, means eating absolutely no products of animal origin. There is a great difference between the two positions. The Government recommend a balanced diet. We are not going to tell people what or what not to eat; we want people to be given information that will enable them to make informed choices.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of food labelling. As she knows, we are committed to improving it: that has been one of our prominent policies both in opposition and in government. As she also knows, there is currently no definition in law of the term “vegan”, and labelling products as vegan is entirely voluntary. However, if such labelling is used, consumers are protected by the law, because it is illegal to mislead them through false or misleading labelling. A new European Union regulation on the provision of food information to consumers will be published in the next few months, and will then enter into force in all member states. It covers the rules for general food and nutrition labelling, and requires the European Commission to draft a set of measures governing use of the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan”. I hope that that reassures that the hon. Lady that the issue is being, and will continue to be, addressed.

The Government’s promotion of advice on a balanced diet applies to vegetarians and vegans as well as to those who eat much more livestock products. A well-planned diet based on anything can be healthy as long as it contains the right balance of foods. The main issue that we face is, of course, obesity, which is a leading cause of serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It also costs the national health service £5 billion a year. The Government’s recently published document “Healthy lives, healthy people: a call to action on obesity in England” sets out how obesity will be tackled in the new public health and NHS systems, and the role that partners can play. Obesity is a serious problem, and it is the responsibility of individuals to change their behaviour to benefit their health. Most of us are eating or drinking more than we need to, and we are not active enough. Being overweight or obese is a consequence of eating more calories than we need.

Chris Williamson: The Minister says that diet and avoiding obesity are the responsibility of individuals. Does he not accept that companies such as McDonald’s

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ruthlessly and specifically target young children in order to force on them a diet that is wholly unhealthy and contributes considerably to the obesity crisis that the nation is currently experiencing?

Mr Paice: No, I do not accept that. The hon. Member for Bristol East reeled off a list of vegan organisations, businesses and retailers in Bristol. They all have a right to advertise their wares as long as they are selling something that is lawful. I do not believe that it is for Government to tell them they should not do so.

What matters is that we encourage people to reduce the amount of calories they consume, in whatever form. As part of the Government’s ongoing Change4Life campaign, we are encouraging people to make the key simple changes: eat more fruit and vegetables; cut down on fatty foods, particularly unsaturated fats; reduce calorie consumption; and, of course, be more active.

Kerry McCarthy: This section of the Minister’s speech sounds like filler to avoid talking about the issues I have raised. He said that it is important that people get the right balance in their diet. What do the Government regard as the right balance for eating red meat and processed meats in a diet?

Mr Paice: I cannot tell the hon. Lady that precisely. Such matters are the responsibilities of the Health Education Authority and the Department of Health. As she rightly said in her earlier comments, they are not part of my remit. There is a wealth of information, however, about balanced diets and recommended proportions and amounts, and 70 grams a day of meat is established as being a good figure.

The hon. Lady does me a disservice by suggesting I was not going to answer her questions, as I will do so. However, the points I am making now are important, and they are relevant to the question of balanced diets.

Returning to the Foresight report, which I mentioned earlier, it is clear that we need to achieve a sustainable food supply and to use the whole range of measures available to us. The hon. Lady made a point about the consumption of grain to produce meat. I have to say to her that two thirds of the world’s farming area is grass, and the only way to turn grass into food is to feed it through livestock. If we were to remove all that livestock from the system, the world would be a lot shorter of food. That is a simple fact, so what else is the hon. Lady going to do? She looks askance, but she should understand that large parts of the world will not grow grain as the terrain or climate is wrong, or the soil is too thin. Therefore, grass is the only option if that land is to produce food.

The hon. Lady also referred to the figure of 8 kg to produce 1 kg of beef. On the face of it, that is correct, but only if all the cattle are fed is grain. However, as I have just implied, a large proportion of the beef—and the sheepmeat—in this world is produced from grass. Many of the livestock never see a grain of cereal in their diet. That is the reality. Yes, there are beef feedlots in America where the cattle are fed only on grain, and in that context the figures the hon. Lady cites are right. However, to use them as if they apply to the whole industry across the world is entirely misleading. In fact,

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the bigger consumers of grain are pigs and poultry because they eat nothing else. They can be fed only on grain and soya bean.

On the subject of soya, the hon. Lady talked about the increasing desecration of the rain forest to produce arable crops, but the main such crop is soya bean, which is what most people who do not eat meat eat. How can one have a haggis made of soya? [Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) points out, it is possible to find vegetarian haggis. However, the point is that soya is the staple diet of people who do not eat meat.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Paice: No, I am not going to give way, as I do not have much time left.

I go back to my starting point of the Foresight report. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has signed up to a five-point action plan to take it forward, and that is very important. I shall now deal with the hon. Lady’s questions, and she will appreciate that I have had them for only a few minutes, although we did speak briefly before the debate. She asked about the climate change talks in Copenhagen and, to the best of my knowledge, the issue she mentioned is not on the agenda at the moment. She asked about our European counterparts and the common agricultural policy, and the answer is that we have not discussed veganism. I am not sure precisely what she wants us to talk to them about, but it is very early days in the reform of the CAP. At the moment, there is no unanimity on the Commission’s proposals for CAP reform.

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The hon. Lady alleges that 80% of the European Union’s animals are factory farmed. I suppose that that depends on the definition of “factory farming”, but I find it difficult to believe. I have spoken about development policy and global food security; that is all covered in the Foresight report. She asked about the assessment we have made of the health benefits of a diet low in meat and dairy consumption, and, again, I have addressed the point. It is a matter of balance. It is not a question of doing without those things; it is question of keeping the intake to a sensible level. The figures are available from the various Government bodies. I have addressed the issue of food labelling; it is going to be resolved.

As for the hon. Lady’s question about the EU directive on animal experimentation, I am afraid that I do not know the answer. It is a matter for the Home Office and I cannot answer that. On the establishment of the proposed network of marine protected areas, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), is working very hard on this, along with Natural England. To the best of my knowledge, they will be making sure that wildlife is protected. But that is a long way from the implication that we should not be eating fish, which I thought was her approach.

I hope that I have answered the hon. Lady’s main principles. As I said at the outset, we are not going to agree entirely on this issue, but she has raised it and the House has heard what she has to say.

Question put and agreed to.

10.56 pm

House adjourned.